|Henry carried Arsenal in the old days but will the ageing legend now need to be carried [GALLO/GETTY]
"He had me at 'hello'," was one of the wittier headlines as Arsene Wenger announced his intention to bring Thierry Henry back to the Emirates Stadium on a two-month loan deal.
Paraphrasing a famous line from the 1990s sports romantic comedy, Jerry Maguire, wasn’t so far off the mark with Wenger admitting that he’d made up his mind to re-sign his former favourite son on November 17th. That was the day when Henry began training with the Gunners after arriving from the New York Red Bulls, with Major League Soccer (MLS) starting its close season.
In one way, securing the veteran Frenchman as cover for Africa Cup of Nations-bound strikers Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh makes perfect sense. Henry’s return of 14 regular season goals for New York was the third highest in the MLS.
"I would say that he's between 50-60% of the player he was in 2004"
Former Newcastle and FC Dallas goalkeeper Shaka Hislop
But on the other hand, it’s a move that could sully Henry’s sterling reputation as an Arsenal and Premier League legend.
How might the fans react when it becomes obvious that a man turning 35 later this year is no longer the irresistible force he was as the talisman of the so-called Invincibles eight years ago?
The Arsenal side of 2003-2004 went through the premiership season unbeaten to clam the title by 11 points, with Henry scoring 30 goals in 37 league matches and 39 in 51 games in all competitions.
"There's no disguising that Thierry Henry isn’t the striker he once was," said former Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop who tussled with Henry in his prime.
"I would say that he's between 50-60% of the player he was in 2004."
Hislop, best known for his days at Newcastle United, West Ham and Portsmouth, is well placed to judge Henry’s merits. The Trinidad and Tobago international finished his career in the MLS with FC Dallas as a 38-year-old and now works as a Connecticut-based TV pundit for ESPN International.
"Henry doesn’t have the pace he once did but he’s still a quality player," Hislop said.
"He still has the touch, the vision and is as identifiable with Arsenal football as anyone since Ian Wright.
"But in the end, he will be judged by the fans and the media by what he can deliver on the pitch."
Long before the Rocky films saw protagonist Rocky Balboa make a series of comebacks to the boxing ring, sports and nostalgia have been intertwined. One wag suggested that if Henry was returning to Arsenal after almost five years, then 74-year-old Sir Bobby Charlton should be coaxed out of retirement to bolster Manchester United’s misfiring midfield.
| Hislop feels Henry could be just as important off the pitch as he is on it [GALLO/GETTY]
The Arsenal Invincibles were arguably the greatest English side of the past decade, but several members perhaps played a little longer than they should have, either in a sentimental return to north London or as they tried their hand elsewhere.
When he rejoined the Gunners as a 35-year-old for half a season in 2010, Sol Campbell was clearly a shadow of his former self yet still managed to make 14 appearances in all competitions, score a goal in the Champions League and pass his 200th game for the club.
Also making his 200th appearance was 41-year-old Jens Lehmann who came out of retirement and found himself starting at Blackpool in April 2011 when Manuel Almunia broke down in the warm-up. The German became the oldest Arsenal player in Premier League history.
Patrick Vieira bossed the Invincibles’ midfield but when he signed with Manchester City in 2010 as a 33-year-old, much of the swagger had gone. He made only 12 league starts over two seasons. Another former French international Robert Pires began just four matches – two of them in the FA Cup – during his return to England as a 37-year-old in 2010-2011 for Aston Villa.
"A lot of the time, senior players are brought to the club not necessarily for what they do on the pitch but what they add to the team off it," Hislop said.
"The experience in the dressing room, their ability to take the highs and lows as evenly as each other plus their attitudes on the training ground.
"When it comes to Arsenal in 2012, Wenger needs Henry to be a leader and bring his experience to a dressing room that sorely lacks senior players."
"Whatever goals Henry delivers is an added bonus. He’s mainly there to give van Persie the occasional break"
Henry has admitted that the Arsenal team of 2007 may have been better off without him when injuries limited his final season league goal return to just 10 and he’d left for Barcelona, where he would turn out to be only a qualified success. Another factor is his one-time ‘cool’ relationship with current top-dog Robin Van Persie, whom he described as "not the easiest guy to deal with" in a recent interview.
But Hislop says the loanee will be happy to play support act to the Dutchman who broke Henry’s Arsenal record of 34 goals in a calendar year by scoring 35 in 2011, second only to Alan Shearer’s Premier League record of 36 set in 1995.
"Whatever goals Henry delivers is an added bonus. He’s mainly there to give van Persie the occasional break."
It is obviously inaccurate to say that the ageing body of Henry now moves only marginally quicker than the bronzed statue of him that now sits outside the Emirates Stadium. But what happens over the next few weeks could change how the passing fans remember the man who was voted Arsenal’s Best Ever Player in a top-50 poll.
They just need to hope that Van Persie doesn’t break down with injury and Henry isn’t asked to repeat his magic of a decade ago as a solo act. That's about as likely as Sir Bobby Charlton setting up Wayne Rooney for the winner in a Wembley final.
* Former CNN & BBC anchor Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever , the world's first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey
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Source: Al Jazeera